The Oscar-nominated Live-Action Shorts this year couldn’t be more of the moment. In all but one, the plot revolves around law enforcement, specifically, the overstepping of those tasked with policing. And with the beginning of the Derek Chauvin trial this week, the timing is remarkably prescient. Or perhaps policing has been an issue for so long in this world, any week these shorts open in theaters would feel apropos. Suffice it to say, these shorts work as compelling mini-dramas as well as a searing commentary upon those guarding society.
Indeed, not one of the five finalists for the Oscar this year is a comedy. The Academy clearly felt the gravity of this past year and voted accordingly. Four of the five films critique the overreach of those in authority and all five deal with some form of discrimination towards minorities. However, as dark as they all get, each ends with a sense of hope. Despite the tough stories these all are, you’ll likely feel optimistic about the human condition at the end of each.
THE LETTER ROOM is sympathetic towards those in authority, despite the fact that this USA entry takes place in a prison. The 33-minute film, written and directed by Elvira Lind, and produced by Sofia Sondervan, is an intimate character study of a corrections officer. Richard (Oscar Isaac) is a veteran guard and sensitive soul, still believing in his fellow man despite all he has seen. He longs for a more pro-active job at the correctional institute in New York and the opportunity arrives when he is transferred to the communications department there. Specifically, he’s tasked with reading letters sent to prisoners and determining if there’s anything dangerous in them.
One series of correspondence that comes across Richard’s desk really affect him. They are love letters to a death row inmate from his long-time girlfriend Rosita (Alia Shawkat). Director Lind showcases them with Shawkat’s reading the prose in voice-over. Her words are loving and intimate. Richard is touched deeply by them, and her passion underlines the lack of love in his personal life.
When Rosita’s boyfriend refuses to write back, Rosita threatens to kill herself the day he’s due to be lethally injected. This alarms Richard and he gets involved, overstepping his bounds as a corrections officer. He tracks down Rosita and is quite surprised to hear her tell her full story. Richard’s nosiness should play as more offensive than it does, but Isaac imbues his noble schlub with such earnestness, it’s hard not to root for the man. Don’t be surprised if the Academy feels a deep connection too and votes this deftly told tearjerker their top prize.
Two shorts that put forth a much more negative portrayal of those who police are THE PRESENT and TWO DISTANT STRANGERS.
In THE PRESENT, all that warm and loving family man Yusef (Saleh Bakri) wants to do is buy some groceries and an anniversary gift for his wife on a quick jaunt to the West Bank. However, the Israeli guards patrolling the checkpoint are suspicious of those of his stripe and make it difficult for Palestinians such as him to pass.
Yusef tries to cajole them, but the indifferent guards blanch at his efforts. Perhaps to spite him in front of his young daughter Yasmine (Mariam Kanj), they choose to hold him in a nearby cage for a few hours. When he’s finally released, it’s late and his daughter has wet herself because she couldn’t hold her water. Still, Yusef strives to be upbeat and makes the trip to the store a positive one for his little girl.
They buy the groceries, as well as a new fridge for the anniversary gift, but as they push it towards the checkpoint they suspect that getting back home might be just as much a hassle as the encounter that morning. Director Farah Nabulsi and producer Ossama Bawardi ratchet up the tension with each passing minute of this short and it all makes for a nervy, edge-of-your-seat thriller.
TWO DISTANT STRANGERS, the 29-minute short from the USA, plays like a cross between FRUITVALE STATION and GROUNDHOG DAY. Carter James (Joey Bada$$) wakes in the morning from a one-night stand with comely pick-up Perri (Zaria Simone). He wants to linger with her but feels pressed to get home and feed his dog. As he steps outside, he has a near-miss with a coffee-carrying pedestrian and that draws the attention of a nearby cop (Andrew Howard). One thing leads to another, and before you can say “George Floyd,” Carter is on the ground suffocating in the cop’s chokehold.
It’s a horrible thing to watch, but before he expires, Carter wakes up. He’s back in Perri’s bed, his day starting all over again. He soon realizes he’s in some sort of repeating time loop and doomed to run into the cop over and over again. Directors Travon Free and Matin Desmond Rice give the story a fantastical veneer worthy of TWILIGHT ZONE. Still, such cleverness doesn’t make watching Carter’s numerous death scenes any easier. The short clearly makes the point that systemic police abuse of the black community is an endless cycle of violence and racism, but the juxtaposition of horror and fantasy isn’t wholly successful here.
The short WHITE EYE indicts the police as well, albeit more subtly. This 20-minute entry from Israel, directed by Tomer Shushan and produced by Shira Hochman and Kobi Mizrahi, tells the story of a young man (Daniel Gad) trying to get his stolen bike back and how the local Israeli police only compound his problems.
Discovering his bike chained outside a city restaurant, the man calls the cops, and they tell him to watch and wait for the thief before they can release his bike back to him. After waiting a while, the supposed thief shows up, but he explains that he bought the bike from a third party. Now what? The police are called back, a local restauranteur gets involved, and everything spirals out of control, getting much more complicated.
This story’s villains are low-key ones. The cops mean well, but they make things considerably worse every time they show up. WHITE EYE is an exceedingly sly story that demonstrates how the police can muck things up irrevocably even if they don’t raise a baton or pull out a gun.
Finally, there is FEELING THROUGH, another USA entry, and it’s the one I predict will win the Oscar come April 25th. This short directed by Doug Roland concerns a young black man named Tareek (Steven Prescod) trying to find a place to crash on a cold night in New York City. After wandering around the city with no success, he happens upon a blind and deaf man waiting quietly at a bus stop.
The man’s name is Artie, and he’s played by Robert Tarango, the first deaf and blind actor to star in a film, long-form or short. Tareek is intrigued by this gentle soul who seems quite calm and witty despite being in such a vulnerable state. The two start a conversation with Artie writing words on a notepad with a blue Sharpie and Tareek writing back by spelling out the letters to his words in Artie’s hand.
The two form a bond, seek out liquid refreshment together and get to know each other better as they pass the time waiting for the bus to show up. Don’t be surprised if there’s a lump in your throat during the last 10 minutes of this film’s 19-minute running time. And don’t be surprised if all five of these move you substantially as well. Like all good films, no matter the length, they tell compelling stories and draw you into the world of their characters.
(These wonderful short films are being presented by ShortsTV, the official presenters of the Oscar® Nominated Short Films being released globally in theatrical and virtual cinemas starting on April 2, 2021. To learn more about the participating theaters (in-person and virtually) and how to purchase tickets, visit https://tickets.oscar-shorts.com/.)